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How Chicago Med Will Tackle Dr. Latham's Fascinating Backstory

Will Rhodes survive his fellowship?

Liz Raftery

To say Chicago Med's Dr. Connor Rhodes (Colin Donnell) and his new mentor Dr. Isidore Latham (Ato Essandoh) are off to a rocky start on would be an understatement.

So far, Rhodes has been lambasted in the OR, had his capabilities as a doctor called into question, and told bluntly that he wasn't Dr. Latham's first choice as a protégé. So, what gives?

"Latham obviously is a prickly kind of guy," Essandoh tells TVGuide.com. "I think that he is somebody who's focused on the numbers and the results, and he's not really sort of geared towards [being] social. I think we'll start to learn why that is."

Mild spoiler alert: As showrunners Andrew Schneider and Diane Frolov teased previously, viewers will soon learn that Dr. Latham is on the autism spectrum. And while he and Rhodes will continue to clash early on, the hope is that they'll eventually come to a tacit understanding.

"You saw [Latham] blow up at one point. Obviously that's from the spectrum as much as it is from his intensity," Essandoh says. "The thing about Dr. Latham is he's supremely talented. He has almost a preternatural ability to analyze and diagnose patients that Dr. Rhodes at first is not going to trust but then has to respect. So, [Rhodes] will get pushed to the point where he might want to change [careers] and move out of Chicago completely, but I think that he'll start to see other sides of Dr. Latham, particularly with Dr. Latham's talents, and also with other things that Dr. Latham has to do."

How well does the Chicago Med cast know Chicago?

Dr. Latham is also a devoutly religious Orthodox Jew, an aspect Essandoh says drew him to the role. "When my agent called me and said, 'He's an African-American devout Orthodox Jewish surgeon,' I said, 'Yes. No problem. I'll do that,'" Essandoh says. "My first instinct was what I think what everybody's instinct is, that we've never seen a black Jew before."

Colin Donnell, Ato Essandoh, Brian Tee, Chicago Med
NBC, Elizabeth Sisson/NBC

Essandoh says he met with African-American Rabbi Capers Funnye, who has also offered religious counsel to President Obama, to research the role. "He gave me a brief primer on Judaism and black people in the Jewish religion, and it was fascinating. By the time I [finished] talking to him, I was completely sold on the character, on the realism of the character," Essandoh says. "Just the little bit that I've learned about Judaism, I didn't realize how, dare I say, intense that religion is, as far as all of the things that you have to know and remember, and the ritualism of it. That's what I think really drew me to the character, because there are parallels between the ritualism of Orthodox Judaism and the repetitive ritualism of somebody who's a surgeon. I think both of them sort of match, and I think that's what even teases out more of Dr. Latham's intensity."

If it seems like the show is trying to merely check a number of boxes when it comes to Latham (black, Jewish, autistic), Essandoh says he initially had the same concerns -- but that they were alleviated when he realized that Dr. Latham's characteristics will emerged through nuanced storytelling. We'll see his religion come into play in tonight's episode, which takes place on shabbos.

"Not that I didn't trust Dick Wolf and Andy and Diane, of course, but you don't want to be the gag character, that people go, 'What is that? This is ridiculous,'" Essandoh says. "The Judaism isn't just a, oh, we're just going to make him Jewish. They're actually going to go into the particulars of his religion as well, which I found extremely fascinating. He can't operate anything that's electric or that has fire. ... He can't operate an elevator until somebody does it for him."

And Chicago Med will also explore the thorny question of whether Dr. Latham's autism may actually make him a better surgeon, even as it hinders him from connecting with his colleagues.

"Because of the spectrum aspect and because he's so logical, he looks at the human as a machine. So, 'What do I have to fix? What valve do I have to push? What do I have to change out to make this heart OK?'" Essandoh explains. "That works when you're in surgery, but I think it doesn't work when you're dealing with the actual human being. ... Why he's a great surgeon is because he can sort of divorce himself from the human emotions that everybody else has."

Chicago Med airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.